By Mon-Charles Egbo
In a democracy, there is nothing that can be more reassuring than the confidence that one’s vote counts or that the genuine wishes of the people are respected in every electoral contest.
Even the unscrupulous critics agree that electronic transmission of election results is not only strategic in strengthening and deepening democracy but in vogue, the world over. Among others, it confers legitimacy on elections sequel to inherent transparency and also encourages massive participation following the ease and convenience it delivers. And quite instructively, it does not replace but complements the usual physical transmission, thus implying that combination of both guarantees the infallibility of the results.
Hence, Nigeria’s peculiar situation and chequered political history have necessitated much emphasis on this subject. There is a raging debate about the desirability or otherwise of deploying electronic transmission of election results. And on this, Nigerians are today largely polarized along partisan and regional lines. Equally, the argument has diminished all other considerations necessary for a holistic reform of the electoral process towards credible elections. People tend to forget that credible elections are by-products of series of events, or that there is a combination of factors with varying measures of influence that determine the outcome of elections. No one is sparing thoughts for those other critical components that inter-play to bring about free, fair and peaceful elections.
But in retrospect and despite its unimpeachable merits, solely clamouring for electronic transmission of election results amounts to building something on nothing. It is not just the last step in the whole gamut of the electoral cycle, it requires other conditions which must be met for the results being transmitted to be valid and acceptable. Certainly, electronic transmission of results cannot operate in isolation if effectiveness and efficiency are the ultimate goals. Rather, the discourse should be expanded beyond internet network coverage to make progress.
As an instance, the 1993 presidential election is the freest and fairest to date. Partisanship, religion and ethnicity were played down. People were enthusiastic and vigilant, monitoring the processes. The eventual outcome reflected the aspirations of the people, though unfortunately truncated at the stage of results declaration. Even those that lost were fulfilled that indeed “the people have spoken”, in the words of Ambassador Babagana Kingibe.
But today sadly and drastically, things have changed. Most people do not believe in the electoral process anymore. Some do not even go for voter registration while the majority of the eligible deliberately do not vote. And some of those that eventually vote are either induced materially or motivated by sundry primordial sentiments. Lagos and Ogun states just had council elections of which the stories are unpalatable. The democratic space is presently devoid of robust and dynamic political cultures. Political party selection processes are largely compromised and monetised. Character, capacity and competency are lacking in political leadership across the board. Some occupy leadership positions but do not provide leadership. Some elected representatives only engage in grandstanding and at best, representing themselves and themselves alone. Mutual suspicion and intolerance today define relationships amongst tribes, political parties and religions. Allegiance and loyalty are no more to the country or constitution but officeholders.
And yet in the midst of all these, there is a massive fixation with electronic transmission of election results independent of the other components of the process as contained in the proposed amendments to the electoral laws. Ideally, it is counter-productive agitating exclusively for electronic transmission of results without providing for veritable platforms to support it. Again, it is not just about internet network availability. As such and in no particular order, these questions should agitate the minds of well-meaning citizens: Is it not common knowledge that election rigging is perpetrated by some politicians with the active connivance of some corrupt individuals representing the electoral umpire and security agencies? Is it strange that the absence of effective security around the voting arenas and collation centres, and of course, the pathways connecting the locations, undermine efforts at ensuring the integrity of the activities and eventual outcome? Are the youths protected by the campaign spending threshold provided for in the legislation? Between the independent national electoral commission, INEC, and the courts, who should disqualify candidates in elections? Is INEC truly independent? Can INEC guarantee the integrity and credibility of its representatives at various stages of the electoral process? Why is electronic voting not also being on the front burner, considering its comparative advantages? Are the political parties driven by the principles of internal democracy? Are the politicians guided by national interest? Will electronic transfer make any difference if the process that produces the results is defective? Besides, what about the security of the internet server? Why are there still areas lacking in internet coverage despite how long Nigeria has witnessed the telecoms revolution? What about the government’s interventions targeted at rebuilding the areas that were destructively attacked by insurgents? Are there safe electoral opportunities for the internally displaced persons in various camps across the country? What is tangibly on the ground to motivate people to come out and vote and also possibly guard their ballots before they translate to results? Are the security operatives well-equipped and motivated for diligence in their duties of ensuring free and fair elections? Are those in various leadership positions committed to patriotic ideals and aspirations? Are the religious, socio-cultural and opinion leaders guided by national unity and integration? Are the words of the political leaders consistent with their actions? What examples do the leaders show their followers? Are the legislators truly engaging the people before voting on national issues? Are the constituents cooperating with the representatives by way of information exchange and idea-sharing?
And then lastly, is it not logical to be passive or outrightly shun the electoral process as bandits kill, maim, loot, rape and kidnap at will, even with firepower superior enough to bring down fighter jets?
Therefore, the real enemies of the clamoured electronic transfer of election results are not the national assembly but the combined effects of leadership, followership and institutional failures, manifesting as insecurity, corruption and infrastructure deficit, including of course those benefiting from them.
These fundamental challenges are all staring us in the faces and also without prejudice whatsoever, reasonably lend credence to the position of the president of the Senate, Ahmad Lawan.
According to him, “when the majority of Senators voted against immediate application or deployment of electronic transmission of results from the polling units, to the ward, to the local government, states and federal, they didn’t say they do not believe in electronic transmission (of election results). All of us in the Senate, 109 of us, believe that at one point, our electoral process must deploy electronic transmission so that it eases and enhances the electoral process and give it more credibility and integrity. But you see, when you have not reached that stage where you could deploy the electronic transmission from every part of the country, then you have to be very careful. And no matter what anybody may say, you cannot have about 50 percent of Nigerian voters not participating or not getting their votes counted in elections and say it doesn’t matter, that we have to start the electronic transmission. We know the evils of not transmitting results electronically but compare the evils of electronically transmitting just half of the electoral votes from Nigerians and say you have elected a President with 50 percent only. Nobody said don’t use electronic transmission at all. You use it when we reach there…..There is no way any National Assembly, not even this Ninth National Assembly will deny INEC the use of electronic transmission as part of our electoral process when we are ready for it”.
So rather than being preoccupied with only the outcome, wittingly or otherwise ignoring the process, we should pause and ponder on the peculiarities of the moment to adjust and readjust where necessary. We must embrace the truth and face the reality. Specifically, we should factor in human interferences despite the robustness of the technology. Government should be seen to take responsibility and be accountable. Citizens should dispassionately close gaps with the authorities. It is only in that can we collectively attain a new order of participatory democracy defined by strong, effective and efficient institutions that among others, guarantee a strengthened electoral system.
And primarily in this regard, the government should urgently address the already-worsened issues of poverty, unemployment and insecurity in the land. Substantially this shall decimate the menace of political corruption, voter apathy and general disenchantment propagating separatist agitations across the nation. And then as a deliberate policy to eliminate thuggery, adequate security provisions should be made at the polling and collation centres in addition to the roads connecting them. Similarly and towards checking the possible conspiracy or culpability of the electoral umpire and security agents during elections, willing electorates should be protected in participating to escort election results to collation centres. Again, the internet service providers operating in the country should be charged with definite timelines and enabling operating environments, to deploy infrastructures and networks in every part of the country. This should be effected and test-run at least one year before the 2023 general elections.
Fellow compatriots, concerted efforts should be channelled to the fore-going, rather than unwarranted attacks solely on the national assembly. However, the legislators should realize that it is not just about making laws, the capacities of the institutions should be strengthened and complemented with sustained advocacies aimed at activating the political will to implementing them to the letters, towards all-round developments and especially, curtailing the excesses of the politicians.
Meanwhile, Lawan had challenged Nigerians to use their votes to bring about the changes they desire. Hear him: “if you don’t like the set of members in the Ninth National Assembly, change all of us in 2023. Get better people but help support the system to function because that is your protection”.
Once again, electronic transmission of election results is an idea whose time has come. There is no alternative to it. But to maximally reap its inherent dividends, both government and citizens must embrace attitudinal change and institutional reforms towards national rebirth.
Egbo is the print media aide to the President of the Senate